Allie’s 100th

Allie Ritzenberg was born on November 11, 1918, the day marking the end of what at the time was called “the Great War.”  His 100th birthday was celebrated on Armistice Day this year in his home nestled atop a bluff in the Maryland suburbs of Washington with breathtaking views of the Potomac River. He has lived there for decades but for  the past several years has lived alone, following the death of his wife, Peggy, who died in her mid nineties. Until last year he was still driving, playing tennis, collecting tennis memorabilia, and preparing his own gourmet, vegetarian meals.

His house was jam-packed with family, friends and admirers that included his four middle-aged children and spouses and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren along with many of Washington’s elite, whom Allie had gotten to know during his 60 plus years as the tennis coach of Saint Alban’s School and tennis pro at the Saint Alban’s Tennis Club. The Washington Post commentator, David Ignatius, was there as was Don Graham, the former owner and publisher of the Post, and probably a whole lot of other famous people I did not recognize.

I was a member of the club and played there once or twice a week, often during the middle of the day when most of the courts were free and Allie was looking for someone to chat with. That led to a friendship and later a request to help him with writing his memoir, which he had been working on for a number of years. I agreed with some trepidation but surprisingly found the experience to be relatively stress free with no pushback from him whatsoever. I think he was desperate, having given up on two or three previous helpers.

My pay for helping him pull his story together was one free lesson for every chapter completed. This was probably the best business deal of my erstwhile writing career.

The book, Capital Tennis, was published by the Francis Press in 2004. It is a good read: a kid from a working class, Jewish family somehow ends up in the halls of Washington’s elite, WASP society. One of the themes that runs through the book is the nagging question of whether he was ever truly accepted by that society as an equal member. (I believe the answer would be a resounding yes.) Another is how far he would have gone competitively if the U.S. Open and other championship tournaments had been open to professionals when he was playing his best tennis. (My guess is that he would have gone a long way.)

But Allie also describes in his book how he was just as committed to helping Washington’s inner city kids as he was to giving lessons to Washington’s best and brightest. He started an organization that reached out to these kids and did more than anyone to introduce them to the game he loves.

Allie is an icon in Washington. He was playing tennis with Robert McNamara when he got the word about the Cuban Missile Crisis and with George McGovern when he learned about his running mate’s previous mental problems. He was Jackie Kennedy’s personal tennis coach. During the Kennedy and Johnson years, any serious tennis player in those Democratic administrations would have belonged to the Saint Alban’s Tennis Club. Most would have taken lessons from Allie. The wait list to get in was measured in years. As long as he was running the club, that trend continued. He has been ranked number one in the “over 80” category for many of the last twenty years and was playing competitively in tournaments around the world well into his nineties.

This birthday celebration, however, was different from his 99thwhen Allie was in true form, holding forth about the state of the country and the world, always with a twinkle in his eye and often a devilish grin. This year he was solemnly seated in a wheel chair connected up to an oxygen tube. His son said that about four months ago he started a decline and now has 24/7 nursing assistance. He made a brief appearance and shook hands but retired well before the event was over. Though there was still a sparkle in his eyes, he was not his old self. Somehow I think we all had assumed that Allie was immortal, that once he turned 100 he would be ranked number one in the over age 100 category forever and that one day, if he did die, it would be from a heart attack on the court after thrashing a much younger opponent 6-0. But, alas, that is not to be. One can only hope that the checking out process for Allie will not involve suffering or be too prolonged. And isn’t that what we all hope for—to be able to live a rich and full life and to keep on going strong for as long as we can, squeezing the last few drops out of the lemon?

 If only we all could be so fortunate.


8 thoughts on “Allie’s 100th

  1. A great life well lived by the sound of it – not many of us get so far without showing signs of decline.

    But certainly in this country, and surely in yours too, you can go part way to making that final wish come true. G and I have on the table as I type our “living wills” papers which say – basically – do not resuscitate when we no longer have mental or physical capacity………..

    Roll on the day!

  2. Joe,

    I am sure that everyone who reads this piece remarks how fortunate Allie has been to have lived such a life and how fortunate you are to have been his tennis student. It is now clear to me how and why you gave me such a thrashing on the court in Virgin Gorda. And of course don’t forget about poor Hank, beating him soundly and even BREAKING HIS WRIST! How often does that happen on the tennis court, for God’s sake?!
    Alas, Allie’s story strikes a familiar theme among those whom I have known who live well into old age, living life to the fullest only to hit a brick wall, suddenly and inexplicably. a going concern one day and an old, old man a few short weeks later. We shake our heads in awe, and our personal feelings of vulnerability rise up once again. And there are no words.

    Best regards to all and be nice to your innerds this week!


  3. As one who was fortunate to play a Howell-rules game of tennis with you on St. Albans’ courts, I very much appreciate your bringing to light the essence of this man’s good life. I still have a lemon, and am fortunate. This is a nice discovery during the week of Thanksgiving Day

  4. As one who has played a Howell-rules game on St. Albans’ courts, I quite appreciate your bringing his story to life and allowing me to savor the juice I still have in my lemon. A marvellous story that is prime time for all ages. (This may be a second posting as I could not figure out whether my previous message was recorded on your site.)

  5. Wow, Joe what a full and complete, mostly incredibly happy story of a life well-lived. What talent you have! It makes me thankful for you!

  6. I met Allie at his home when his grandaughter Alex married my son Jake right in Allie’s backyard under the Huppah. We had a spirited conversation and pretty much agreed on the state of sport and the world. Having spent as much of my career on the squash courts of Trinity College and the (Boston) University Club as I could the story of Allie’s conversion of his passion for tennis into a gainful and pesonnally rewarding profession enthraled me. Amazing that his contribution to peaceful competition may outrank he efforts of his political peers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.